IDEC Pharmaceuticals is founded in San Diego by UC-San Diego physicians and immunologists Ivor Royston and Robert E. Sobol, San Diego bioentrepreneur Howard Birndorf, and Stanford University cancer researchers Ron Levy and Richard Miller. Brook Byers of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers is the lead investor in a syndicate composed additionally of Anthony Evnin of Venrock Associates and Pitch Johnson of Asset Management.
Royston and Sobol’s involvement in the commercial venture is criticized by academic colleagues. They are carrying out federally-funded research for the company in his university laboratory. Their critics believe the arrangement constitutes a conflict of interest, but investigations conducted by the university and the NIH find nary a trace of ethical impropriety. To reporters making inquiries about the probes, Royston says, “If you get lymphoma, you’ll be glad I started IDEC.”
The IDEC startup integrates an existing company started by Levy and Miller in Mountain View, California, called Biotherapy Systems. Byers recruits William H. Rastetter from Genentech to act as President and CEO. For several years, Rastetter makes a weekly commute between Northern and Southern California, in order to oversee operations personally at the Mountain View and San Diego sites.
The original business plan calls for the development of panels of customized anti-idiotype monoclonal antibodies for use as anti-cancer immunostimulants. Anti-idiotype antibodies are immunoglobulins that target ‘self’ components of the immune system. They naturally seek out and neutralize specific T and B-cell receptors or binding sites on other antibodies. Antibodies are selected from the panel according to reactivity with, specificity to, and affinity and avidity for patients’ tumor cells. The plan entails developing what is, in effect, a customized therapy for each patient. The pharmacoeconomics of the approach ultimately prove unsound.
In 1990, Rastetter revamps the company’s product development strategy, putting IDEC on a path toward a chimeric monoclonal antibody that will target the CD20 antigen on cancerous B-cells. He hires immunologist Nabil Hanna from SmithKline Beecham to direct the research. The result, delivered seven years later, is Rituxan®, the first monoclonal antibody approved by the FDA as a treatment for cancer.